Villagers – That Golden Time

Conor O'Brien's most intimate and vulnerable record to date…

When a record opens with a number titled ‘Truly Alone’ with lyrics discussing the cold entering your bones, it’s fair to assume things will get introspective. Fourteen years after his Mercury Prize-nominated debut, Conor O’Brien, AKA Villagers, has survived this fickle industry by marrying his heart-aching tender vocals with elements of indie folk and even the odd woozy pop number. His last full-length, 2021’s ‘Fever Dreams,’ had the songwriter inject elements of psychedelic soul, creating his most ambitious and sunny album in the process. ‘That Golden Time,’ in contrast, feels like the coming winter. It’s autumnal, reflective, and naturally quite beautiful in places. 

The aforementioned ‘Truly Alone’ is a skeletal creature, haunting, subtle drones filling the space between sparse piano stabs and a lonely electronic beat. It’s reminiscent of Radiohead’s ‘Amnesiac’ era and makes for an ominous opener. The following First Responder ups the ante, O’Brien delivering the kind of sweet romantic melodies that made his name in the first space. Similarly, the lead single, You Lucky One, comfortably joins the ranks as one of Villagers’ great bittersweet moments, the song boasting the album’s most absorbing lyrics. A charmer that rewards repeat listens. 

Not wholly losing the trippy edges of his previous album, the title track goes full Pink Floyd worship with booming reverb, dreamy multitracked vocals, and vivid strings. It’s a millennial cousin to Wish You Were Here, which is no bad thing in our book. It’s not all sad and psychy though, O’Brien wisely sweetening the pill with the gorgeous ditty ‘Brother Hen’. It’s a delightful, catchy track in the same nature-focused vein as Cat Stevens—a beam of sunshine amongst the denser material. 

Speaking of, No Drama returns to the same sense of dread as the album’s opener before evolving into something wistfully cinematic, complete with spy guitars and a mournful orchestral erupting. It’s weirdly the second album this past week that this writer has discovered a ‘Bond’ moment. 007 core? Either way, it’s a majestic number and is the most thrilling moment on the record. It also demonstrates how far O’Brien has grown as a composer since his early days.

The songwriter himself described how ‘That Golden Time’ explores romanticism versus realism, and these themes are well translated into the final product. There are moments of vulnerability and longing but also a few giddying highs, much like life itself. Fans of Villagers’ more band-orientated work may prefer his more upbeat fare, but the songwriter wearing his heart off his sleeve is hardly news. It’s an album that sees things stripped back and then executed with a production finesse and sophistication that can only come with years of musical growth. 

It is an intriguing new chapter in the Villagers story that will reward listeners who spend some real time unwrapping it properly. 

7/10

Words: Sam Walker-Smart

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